How Race Matters in the Classroom

From The Root

By Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D.

Recently, the media reported that Florida and Virginia are attempting to close the "achievement gap" by setting different performance standards for black and white students. These controversial and misguided proposals demonstrate a dreadfully shortsighted assessment of race and achievement in the United States. Instead of dealing with the complicated racial nuances that shape black students' classroom experiences, Florida and Virginia are flirting with the idea of "lowering the bar" for black students, and by association, their teachers.

The recently ended Chicago teachers' strike highlighted the challenges of defining teacher effectiveness in the U.S. Although teaching in Chicago involves significant cross-cultural interactions between teachers and students, racial issues in the classroom were rarely discussed in the media or among school leaders. In Chicago, the preschool through 12th-grade student population is only 15 percent white (9 percent in public schools), yet the Chicago teaching force is 53 percent white. Blacks and Hispanics comprise more than 80 percent of Chicago schoolchildren, yet they make up only 40 percent of the teaching force. 

Black students in Chicago are being suspended and arrested at a rate that greatly exceeds their representation in the student body. Earlier this year, Voices of Youth in Chicago Education estimated that police made 2,546 school-based arrests (75 percent black) between September 2011 and February 2012 in Chicago. According to the Civil Rights Data Collection Report, black students account for 76 percent (pdf) of students who are suspended in Chicago public schools, yet they only represent 45 percent of the student body. 

In a perfect world, the race of a teacher would matter no more than the race of a physician. However, research evidence suggests that cultural differences between teachers and students may account for key differences between the schooling experiences of black and white students. (Details on that research follow on the next page.) Some school advocates suspect that teachers who lack cultural proficiency may relate to black and Hispanic students in a manner that undermines their potential.

After an in-service training on reducing suspensions, a white assistant principal in Chicago told me that the No. 1 reason they suspend students is for coming to school late. He said, "I just don't get it," because no matter how many times they suspend students, students keep coming to school late.

He asked me if there was anything he could do about it, and I asked, "Have you ever asked them why they come to school late?"

His response was, "No, I never thought of that." This is a typical "suspend first, and ask questions never" approach that many educators take with black students. 

In many ways, the situation in Chicago is a microcosm of the larger U.S. education landscape, whereby rapid demographic changes appear to be creating fractures in student-teacher relationships, and disrupting black students' learning experience. In this installment of "Show Me the Numbers" I consider the evidence that the stark contrast between the races of teachers and students might explain why black students are subject disproportionately to harsh discipline, which can result in lower school engagement and diminished academic performance. I also consider the impact of having a majority white and female teaching force in a diverse school system, and whether improving the diversity of the teaching population is the answer.

Margot McMahon